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A Life Dedicated to Unity of Eastern and Western Christians

Interview with Cardinal Thomas Spidlik

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 18, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Among the unexpected new cardinals installed last month was Father Thomas Spidlik, a Jesuit from the Czech Republic, whose life has been a veritable bridge between Eastern and Western Christians.

A professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Cardinal Spidlik lives and works in Rome’s Aletti Center, which promotes personal contacts with scholars of Eastern Europe. In the 1990s he carried out important missions to Russia, which included a meeting with President Boris Yeltsin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in 1992.

In 1995, the priest preached the Spiritual Exercises for the Pope and the Roman Curia, and encouraged the Holy Father to write the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” on ecumenism.

Q: Eminence, you were born in Moravia, present-day Czech Republic, where Sts. Cyril and Methodius carried out their mission among the Slavs, at a time when the Church was not yet divided. Has this geographic and spiritual closeness to the apostles of the Slavs influenced your priestly vocation and your mission to become a mediator between Western and Eastern culture?

Cardinal Spidlik: When I received the Holy Father’s letter announcing that I had become a cardinal I thanked him profoundly and I said with all sincerity, that for me, personally, this was not so important as, at my age, I can no longer lead a diocese. I am a bit older than the Pope.

But I thanked him very much because with this gesture the Church wishes to recognize the validity of Eastern spirituality with which I have been concerned for such a long time. This is also the way the gesture was interpreted in the East.

I have received many congratulatory letters from the Orthodox who know me well and with whom I have many personal relations. They have understood that with this gesture the Church of Rome wished to recognize the validity of Eastern spirituality, which also serves for the union of Europe.

I once told the Russian Minister of Culture that when Sts. Cyril and Methodius arrived in Rome they received many privileges that no one had ever received before, because it was hoped that these Slavs could be a bridge between the Europe that was about to split.

Unfortunately, in the ninth century Europe was already so divided that the Slavs themselves split between Christians of the Latin and Byzantine rites. Today, instead, given that the West and East are so far apart, the whole of Europe should become a bridge.

Europe, which seeks to unite economically and politically, should also think of uniting spiritually. Here, Eastern spirituality is of great importance. This fact is recognized by the Church.

Q: Despite your Jesuit formation, your life and activity were always oriented toward the East.

Cardinal Spidlik: I went to Holland for my theology studies, but then Communism arrived and I could no longer return to Czechoslovakia, so I came to Rome. When I finished my studies in spirituality at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, my predecessor, Father Hoser, who had founded the chair of Eastern spirituality, chose me as his successor.

While there, I was dedicated to very many studies; many were translated into different Eastern languages. Not too long ago, for example, a little book of mine was published in Baghdad. It was necessary to have Saddam Hussein’s permission.

The Orthodox have also translated all my books. They use my books for the schools of theology. I have also received the title “honoris causa” from several Orthodox faculties of Eastern countries. Some years ago, I talked with Alexy II, the patriarch of Moscow, for more than an hour. We spoke only of spirituality, and left politics and all diplomatic contacts aside.

Q: Eminence, you have written 140 books and more than 600 articles. Which are your most important and best-known books?

Cardinal Spidlik: My book on “Eastern Spirituality,” for example, was translated into Russian and, after three weeks, 3,000 copies had already been sold.

My book on “The Russian Idea” was addressed, instead, to Westerners, because the Russians themselves regard as too modern the authors of which I speak in this book, for example Bulgakov and Florenski.

I heard that François Mitterrand had my book, translated into French [“L’Idee Russe”] in the hospital when he was already very ill. I hope he didn’t die because of it. The Pope has also read it.

Q: Eminence, you were chosen in 1995 to preach the Spiritual Exercises to the Holy Father and the Roman Curia.

Cardinal Spidlik: Yes, the Pope thanked me for having spoken on Eastern spirituality during those Exercises.

After the Spiritual Exercises, the Pope had the idea to create a new chapel in the Vatican where every year the Spiritual Exercises could take place, given that the Sistine Chapel is always frequented by tourists. This new chapel, called later Redemptoris Mater, should be a place where there “is breathing with two lungs.”

This concept was coined by the famous Russian poet Viaceslav Ivanov, who, when he joined the Catholic Church, said: “I do not cease to be Orthodox. I simply wish to breathe with two lungs.”

The chapel was then decorated by my fellow-brother Jesuit painter Marco Rupnik and the Russian Orthodox artist Alexander Kornooukhov, with a mosaic decoration that represents a meeting between the two artistic traditions, a semi-abstract modern style and the more traditional painting of Russian icons.

Q: In the Spiritual Exercises, you also mentioned Vladimir Soloviev’s book on “The Antichrist.” Did you wish to make an allusion to the timeliness of this book for our days?

Cardinal Spidlik: Soloviev was certainly a very prophetic man. He had some incredible views, but it must all be understood in a symbolic sense. What I think is very timely in Soloviev’s philosophy is when he says that the whole culture is divided: Philosophy, natural sciences, mysticism no longer communicate among themselves. A union can no longer be effected among these sciences; only encyclopedias and Internet are created.

Where can union be found? Soloviev found the answer in Dostoyevsky who said: Beauty will save the world. Union can be found in art. Therefore, here in the Aletti Center we foster Christian art, not Christian science, because faith expressed in symbols is better than abstract concepts.

Q: It is said that Soloviev converted to Catholicism before dying. Is this true? Because, according to the Orthodox, this isn’t the case.

Cardinal Spidlik: He too, like Ivanov, did not wish to cease to be Orthodox. He simply recognized the primacy of the Pope. Is there anything lacking to be a Catholic? This is enough.

Another example: I went to see a dear Romanian friend of mine, the great Orthodox theologian Staniloe, shortly before his death. He told me he could not understand the infallibility of the Pope.

I then replied: You and I are also infallible. He was amazed at my answer, so I explained: When I say during the Mass: “This is my body …, this is my blood …” or when I say: “I absolve you from your sins,” these are infallible words and this is also the Pope’s infallibility, nothing else.

Then Staniloe said: If infallibility is understood in this way, then it is easier to comprehend. Not only is the Pope infallible when he speaks in the name of the Church, but so is the Mother when she tries to speak of God to her child. The priest is infallible in the sacraments and the Pope is also infallible when he speaks in the name of the great sacrament, of the whole Church.

Q: In the same year, 1995, the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” was also published, in which the Pope speaks much about the need for a rapprochement between the Churches, especially a reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. The Exercises you preached then must have had a great influence on the encyclical that was about to be published.

Cardinal Spidlik: I don’t know, but after the Exercises I wrote an article, which appeared in Polish in L’Osservatore Romano, saying that the Pope, himself also a Slav, understands the personal aspect very well, that is, that a person’s life takes precedence over theories. This is the fundamental aspect of Slav spirituality.

I always say: The Greeks knew God through Nature. For them the great universe was like a clock that had need of a clock-maker. The Hebrews know the God of history because for them God is someone that leads them through history.

Today, the problem is that everyone is concentrated on the human individual. Therefore, it is necessary to know God starting from the person himself, because man is the image of God and God is recognized in the image. This anthropological aspect is very important today and is also present in the Pope’s philosophy.

Q: What can we Westerners learn from the rich Eastern spirituality?

Cardinal Spidlik: It is not that something is lacking to us Westerners. Rather, there are different accents in the two spiritual traditions. Some aspects are more emphasized in the West and others in the East.

For example, I personally had much difficulty in accepting the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus or talk about the human heart. For us Westerners it was always more important to let the intellect and will speak; feelings seemed too banal for us. We denigrated the heart.

Instead, in the Bible there is much talk about the heart; the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of men. Therefore, 10 years ago, my first book, in which I speak about the importance of the heart, caused perplexity and difficulty, because it seemed to abound in sentimentalism. But now it is generally accepted, and very soon the Italian translation will be published by the Vatican Press.

The book is about the famous Russian hermit Theophane the Recluse, and the subtitle is, precisely, “The Prayer of the Heart.”

I once took part in a congress in Crete with the Orthodox, and my contribution was to speak on the “prayer of the heart of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola.” An Orthodox friend of mine, a professor of Salonika, told me that I should not speak on this issue because prayer of the heart is a typically Orthodox expression of prayer.

However, I replied: If I show that prayer of the heart also exists in the Western tradition, will you buy me a bottle of wine? And in the end I won. Therefore, we also have this spiritual richness, but our technical terminology has become too rationalistic and therefore we have created too rigid categories. Now it is necessary to return to the heart.

Q: But this theological debate already existed in the medieval age, when the monks of Mount Athos who practiced the spirituality of hesychasm, that is, prayer of the heart, argued with Western theologians, influenced by the Scholastic theory.

Cardinal Spidlik: Yes, of course, but the arguments also existed between the Franciscans and Dominicans. These comparisons between different spiritualities served to specify the meaning of a certain term, but then these useless arguments arose. Instead, it is necessary to seek to understand in what sense theologians use certain terms, if this isn’t clear, we could continue this discussion until morning.

Q: Perhaps it was also language problems that created these misunderstandings: The Greeks did not understand Latin, and vice versa.

Cardinal Spidlik: I say that this is also a problem today. Peoples mix with one another, their mentalities are so different. If there is no effort to understand the different mentalities, constant fanaticisms will arise. Fanaticism stems from the fact that a term is absolutized without thinking how the other understands it.

For example, I once saw Vietnamese in the United States who had left the Catholic Church to follow a sect because they understood the ceremony there better. Once I was in the Congo and I gave a course on Slav spirituality to seminarians of Kinshasa, and the Africans told me that this approach was easier for them to understand than the abstract concepts of French theology. They felt it was closer to their mentality.

Therefore, when Christianity is transmitted in the African or Asian countries it is necessary to try to penetrate their mentality.

Q: Turning once again to the Orthodox Church …

Cardinal Spidlik: Be careful, I don’t like this distinction between Orthodox and Catholics. I never go to visit the Orthodox, but go to visit friends. And my friends always receive me well. I don’t like these categories, these generalizations, because every man is different. If we are not friends, how can we discuss these topics?

It is necessary to make friends. Without trust the faith cannot be discussed. It is not a mechanical thing.

Q: Today, in fact, the Pope has received President Putin in the Vatican. A few days ago, Putin said in an interview with [the Italian daily] Il Corriere della Sera that his mission does not consist so much in inviting the Pope to Russia but, rather, in helping the two Churches to come closer. What do you think of this mission of President Putin?

Cardinal Spidlik: This is the work of politicians, but it is not my work. Once, when I was able to accompany President Yeltsin’s wife and the wife of Foreign Minister Ivanov to the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, explaining to them the idea behind that chapel, Mrs. Ivanov told me that she had read my book on the Russian mystics in French. Then I also gave her my book “L’Idee Russe.”

I do not hold politics in contempt, but in the end it is a question of creating personal relations.

Q: But the Pope’s great wish is to be able to visit Russia before he dies.

Cardinal Spidlik: The newspapers say this. But why shouldn’t a Slav Pope wish to meet with Slavs? Every Christian should want Christians to be united, and the Pope can also want this. But how it’s brought about, will depend on other circumstances.

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